Jay H. Banks knows better than the average Zulu member that with power comes responsibility. So while it’s good to be the king, Banks feels it’s more important to serve.
That’s why he and his wife, Artelia Eudora Bennett Banks, decided that his election — on his fourth try — as the Zulu king would translate to “a reign with a purpose.”
It meant saying yes to just about every request, whether it was participating in the Real Men Wear Pink campaign for the American Cancer Society or serving as a celebrity bartender for the St. Peter Claver Catholic School’s Jazz Extravaganza gala.
“If we can use this to benefit somebody, it’s worth it,” said the 55-year-old Banks, director of the Dryades YMCA School of Commerce. “It’s not about us. It all comes back to that basic idea of wanting to help people.”
Banks has a political background, having served as chief of staff and campaign director for former New Orleans City Council members Dorothy Mae Taylor and Jim Singleton and as a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions of 2008 and 2012.
He’d been a member of Zulu for less than a year when Hurricane Katrina hit, but he made his mark during a gathering of displaced members at a nightclub in Brusly in West Baton Rouge Parish.
When the question arose of whether Zulu would parade in the 2006 Mardi Gras — with so many of its members and other New Orleanians unable to return to the city — Banks stood up and gave an impassioned speech about the need to continue the tradition.
“I said the first casualty of Katrina was normal,” he recalled. “Normal died during Katrina, and normal for New Orleans on Mardi Gras day was Zulu parading. There were people across the country who would see this and see that it’s OK to come back.”
The group agreed Zulu should parade. The theme: “Zulu Leading the Way Back Home.”
Afterward, Banks was asked by the club’s president to fill in for the Zulu spokesman to field myriad media requests. He became an even more public face when, in 2012, after a chance encounter with WDSU news anchor Norman Robinson, he began providing commentary for the station’s live coverage of the Zulu parade.
During his tenure with the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, he’s served in several other capacities, as well, including recording secretary and chairman of the applications committee. He’s been a Zulu “Tramp” since 2008, the same year he was elected as The Big Shot. (He’s most proud that his fellow Tramps have dubbed him “King Tramp.”)
His election as the Zulu king comes in a historic year for the club, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its incorporation as an organization in 1916 after several years as an informal marching troupe.
This also marks the first year that a Zulu member, New Orleans lawyer James Williams, served as king of the Washington, D.C., Mardi Gras, as well as the first time Zulu is parading with its own newly purchased floats.
Banks’ father was a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and his mother was one of the first African-Americans to graduate from Tulane University.
Helping others is a family affair. Banks’ wife, Artelia, has spent nearly three decades working with the state Department of Children and Family Services.
“It was the way that we were raised,” he said. “That is the norm. We’re given blessings, and in order to keep those blessings flowing, you need to share them.”
Or as Artelia puts it, “Our lives really revolve around service.”
On Fat Tuesday, Jay Banks will be the center of attention in an entirely different way — not as a spokesman or a TV commentator, but in full Zulu costume, riding on the king’s float through the crowded streets.
But Mardi Gras presents a mixed bag of emotions for a man used to helping others.
“There will be thousands of people on that street that look to the Zulu king,” he noted, “and the fact that I’m going to be the one they’ll be looking at, it’s exciting and terrifying at the same time.”